HELENA —U.S. House candidate Ryan Zinke is coming under fire from some fellow Republicans over his voting record and stance on abortion, an attack the former state senator calls unjustified and unfair.
Critics contend that Zinke, a former senator from Whitefish, was not a reliable vote against abortion as a senator from Whitefish, despite what he is now saying as a congressional candidate. Zinke is seen as a leading Republican candidate for the House, having raised the most campaign money of any candidates from either party so far.
“I find it ironic that no one has worked harder on an issue that I’m getting attacked for,” Zinke said last week. “I’m pro-life.”
As evidence, Zinke said that Gregg Trude, executive director of the Montana Right to Life Association, has endorsed his candidacy.
“Zinke has a 100 percent voting record with Right to Life Montana,” Trude said.
The group doesn’t publish a written voting scorecard, Trude said, adding: “I keep it pretty much in my brain.”
However, the Montana Right to Life Political Action Committee is making no endorsements as a group in the primary, according to Lianna Karlin, of Big Timber, president of Right to Life Montana.
Troubling to some Republicans is Zinke’s 65 percent score from a group that advocates for a woman’s right to abortion, NARAL Pro-Choice Montana, in the 2009 Legislature. Two years later, this abortion rights group gave Zinke a zero in its scorecard.
The Montana Republican Party platform says it supports “the preservation of innocent human life at every stage of life beginning at conception through natural death.” (See sidebar.)
One House opponent, state Sen. Matt Rosendale, R-Glendive, has distributed a four-page campaign newspaper called the Montana Conservative Express. It features a grid comparing where the four major GOP House candidates stand on four issues, including abortion.
Under “Defending the rights of the unborn,” Rosendale summarizes Zinke’s position this way: “Ryan supports abortion up to 20 weeks.” Zinke disagrees with that assessment.
In contrast, Rosendale lists the positions of state Sen. Elsie Arntzen, and former state Sen. Corey Stapleton, both R-Billings, and himself as being “pro-life Republican.”
Two former state Republican chairmen also are attacking Zinke on abortion, among other issues.
Former Congressman Rick Hill, of Helena, the party’s nominee for governor in 2012, went on Facebook and called attention to Zinke’s “high ratings” from NARAL Pro-Choice Montana.
Hill is backing Arntzen in the race, but said Rosendale and Stapleton also are strong conservatives.
Ken Miller, a former state senator from Laurel who also ran for governor two years ago, sent a recent email accusing Zinke of flip-flopping on a number of issues, including “children’s right to life,” since announcing for Congress. Miller said he hasn’t endorsed anyone in the race.
In addition, three Billings women representing the Montana Legislative Action Fund of the Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, told the State Bureau in recent individual interviews that they met with Zinke at his Billings office March 11. They said they were stunned when Zinke three times told them he supported legalized abortions during a woman’s first 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“When given the opportunity to elaborate on his statement, he offered no other stipulation that would prevent him from supporting abortions up to 20 weeks,” said Kari Zeier, state director of Concerned Women for America. She said the group does not make endorsements.
Zeier said, “We are a pro-life group from the moment of conception until natural death.”
Zinke disputed the women’s interpretation of the conversation, as did his political director, former state Rep. Randy Vogel, R-Billings, who sat in on the meeting. They took Zinke’s comments out of context, Vogel said.
“I did not say I supported (abortion up to) 20 weeks,” Zinke said. “She lied.”
So what is Zinke’s position on abortion?
“No other candidate has run a right-to-life bill, and it passed,” he said.
Zinke said he was the Senate sponsor of an anti-abortion bill in 2011 to protect “unborn victims” from violent crimes. Both chambers passed the bill by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, only to see Gov. Brian Schweitzer veto it.
In addition, Zinke said he voted for bills to require parents to be notified if minor daughters are seeking an abortion.
Zinke also said cosponsored a bill to strip federal funding for abortions.
“I think I’ve done my part,” Zinke said. “I think any attempt to take what I say and what I mean out of context is just that.”
He went on to say: “My position has always been clear. Roe v. Wade is not a legislative issue. What you want to do to make termination as rare as you can through education and prevention and make sure the government doesn’t advocate or financially support termination.”
Roe v. Wade is the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court that legalizes abortion in certain instances.
“The sanctity of life can be protected by what you can make a difference on – education and prevention,” Zinke said. “That is birth control. That is educating our youth, both male and female. on the consequences of action.”
In the voting records, Zinke received positive points from NARAL Pro-Choice Montana for his opposition in 2009 to so-called “personhood” bills. These bills would have defined in the Montana Constitution that life begins at conception, thus banning abortion.
Trude, of Montana Right to Life Association, said he urged Zinke to oppose the “personhood” bills.
“If the ‘personhood’ amendment had passed, in the long run it would set in concrete Roe v. Wade, and Right to Life is against it,” Trude said, adding that right-to-life groups across the country oppose “personhood” bills.
Instead, these groups are working to find ways to further restrict abortions.